Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Help, a review

Have you read The Help? As it was nothing I expected from the title, this book is captivating, colorful and contagious.

This is a book that literally paints it black and white. The juxtaposition of mothering middle-aged maids and 20-something white ladies of fine society in Jackson, MS during the Civil Rights movement delivers nothing short of quippy one-liners from the maids, bucking the high-society snoots with Marriage Degrees - humor and truth wrapped in a transparent bow.

The voice of Skeeter can be seen as a narrative encompassing the entire book. Her conscience however, I believe, is that of the author in a post-segregation modern world. Making the only white character to appear with sympathy for the black maids not only a female, but the only character without a wife and children among her peers makes me wonder if she is in a way, apologizing for the behavior against black people in the '60s. And, it poses a key question- simply how real could a character like Skeeter have been in racist, segregated Jackson in the early '60s?

Her plight is quite selfish - write a book to get the hell out of Jackson. But it is the characters of Aibileen and Minny whose dimension cannot be caged. Their voices so loud you can hear them well after the book closes, each present a view of the world that slowly changes as the story progresses. Aibileen, discovering hope anew and believe it or not, control over her future after a decision made outside her control. Minny, acting out the results of a new found freedom, finally taking pride in the story of her own life. Minny's is one we witness, while Aibileen's is one we are told.

The kicker comes in the end. When you know the final 10 pages will bring an end to this bold tale, told so vividly you believe in hiding its secret from others, it delivers quite more than a grandeur statement of "what the world will bring" for each character beyond the pages the author has given us.

As Aibileen is forced from her job as Mae Mobley's caretaker, I could literally feel Mae Mobley's heart breaking. Her emotion around losing the closest thing she has to a nurturing mother figure is too much for a reader who has ever felt the scare of their mother walking in the other direction. Be it the first day of kindergarten or being dropped off at college- or perhaps watching a mother put her suitcase in a car and drive away - it is a universal fear.

Kathryn Stockett captures in the pages of The Help, a simple truth that though entirely apparent, I did not discover until the final pages. As women, we are molded by our mothers in inexplicable ways, some we never admit to ourselves. From comments and glances - intended or unintended - and further perceived by our young egos as negative reviews, to the gestures of unconditional love - large or small - the relationship between mother and daughter cannot be confined to the limits of "black and white."

Motherhood transcends race. Daughterhood is blinded by love and acceptance until tainted by a larger, uncontrolled outside world. And unfortunately, tainted daughters also become mothers. The Help, uniquely and cleverly unveils these truths. Bravo to Kathryn Stockett.

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